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Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s executive order against Julius Jones continues to impact the Jones family as they work to clear his name and free him from prison.
Months ago, Gov. Stitt spared Jones from a death sentence four hours ahead of his scheduled execution on November 18, 2021. While the Jones family expressed gratitude that his life was spared, the ordeal also traumatized them as they were forced to have their final, no-touch conversations with Julius, expecting him to die.
As they continue to seek his release from prison after no longer being on death row, for Jones’ sister Antoinette, the most painful action Gov. Stitt took was filing an executive order stating Julius Jones “shall not be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life.”
“I’ve never heard a governor step in and add that to somebody’s stay of execution,” Antoinette Jones said in an interview with The Black Wall Street Times.
“Can I say, that hurts every day to know that someone in power that considers themself a child of God would make that mandate,” she added, holding back tears.
Julius Jones became the first death row detainee in Oklahoma history to receive a recommendation for a commuted sentence to life with the possibility of parole from the Pardon and Parole Board on Sept. 13, 2021. The Governor ignored it, moving the goalposts further back to a clemency hearing. Jones received another favorable 3-1 vote for clemency on Nov. 1st, 2021. Instead of making a decision immediately, Gov. Stitt chose to make the Jones family wait until hours before the Nov. 18 execution was set to take place.
Governor Stitt’s executive order against Julius Jones
In his executive order that simultaneously spared Jones from death and forced him to spend life in prison, Governor Stitt referenced a section of the Oklahoma Constitution. Article 6, Section 10 gives the Governor power to decide commutations “upon such conditions and with such restrictions and limitations as the Governor may deem proper.”
Oddly, in the same breath, the Governor, who is not an attorney, wrote that state laws and the Constitution didn’t give the Pardon and Parole Board authority to recommend life with parole for a death row detainee. He also claimed the Constitution didn’t give him that authority, either. Yet, in the same paragraph, he references the section that specifically says the Governor can decide what limitations should be deemed proper.
Ultimately, Gov. Stitt has moved forward with other executions despite recommendations against it by the Pardon and Parole Board. Stitt moved forward with executing the oldest death row detainee in state history when he ignored the clemency recommendation for Bigler Stouffer.
Therefore, it’s unclear why the Governor would spare Jones if he felt he was guilty. It’s also unclear why the Governor would deny any possible future commutations for Jones if the Governor had any doubt that he committed the 1999 carjacking murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.
“He said he looked at all of the case files, transcripts and things like that. I mean, that hurt. That hurt. His executive order hurt. But I’m still optimistic, you know. I love and I’m grateful and I’m thankful that I have a relationship with God and that God touched his heart to stay Julius’s execution,” Antoinette Jones told TheBWSTimes.
Bipartisan support for reforming death penalty grows
Notably, it took a years-long effort from Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, leader of the Julius Jones Coalition, documentaries shedding light on Julius’s case, along with millions of supporters around the world supporting his innocence before Stitt finally chose life over state-sanctioned murder.
Despite the overwhelming hurdle Gov. Stitt placed on Julius Jones, his sister Antoinette, “Mama” Jones, and the rest of the family remain laser-focused on freeing their brother, who has become a captive of Oklahoma’s criminal legal system.
They’ve continued holding prayer calls with thousands attending. They’ve spoken at schools and other institutions, illuminating the harsh reality of Oklahoma’s vengeful criminal legal system, which has a history of capturing and killing innocent people.
Ten people have been exonerated from Oklahoma’s death row since the Supreme Court reinstated the morbid practice in the 1970s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Five of those exonerations were White men and five were Black, despite the state’s Black population hovering at only seven percent.
In recent months, bipartisan support for reforming Oklahoma’s death penalty system came out of a concern that the government may be killing innocent Americans. On top of that, state Rep. Mauree Turner (D-OKC) filed a bill that would let voters decide whether to keep the death penalty, though it remains doubtful whether Gov. Stitt would sign that bill even if it did make it out of the legislature.
Lawmaker’s effort to restrict Pardon and Parole Board fails
Hope that a tide may be turning in favor of reforms came after the defeat of a bill from Republican Rep. John Pfeiffer. His bill, HB 3903, would’ve restricted the Pardon and Parole Board from recommending parole for anyone sentenced to death or life without parole. It represented a clear case of retaliation against Julius Jones’ clemency.
After a tie-breaking vote from Speaker Pro Tem Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, the bill passed 6-5 out of the Judiciary-Criminal Committee on March 2nd.
“I’m a clear case of an innocent person falling through the cracks of our judicial system,” Julius Jones said in a phone call to KFOR after the vote. “I thought the state was about preserving life, all life.”
In response, the Julius Jones Coalition launched an advocacy effort urging residents to call legislators to vote against the bill. With no vote on the House floor before a legislative deadline, HB 3903 is essentially dead for the time being, but it could be revived next session.
While Rep. Pfeiffer justified his bill by telling media outlets the Pardon and Parole Board was never designed to determine guilt or innocence, other lawmakers said it takes power away from the Board and the Governor. For her part, Antoinette Jones said it would further limit the few options death row detainees have to fight for their innocence.
“Representative Pfeiffer did not tell the whole truth. He did not give the correct information. Our court system is very flawed here in the state of Oklahoma,” Antoinette Jones told The Black Wall Street Times.
Courts can deny appeals on procedural grounds
Explaining her experience with her brother’s decades-long imprisonment, Jones said that Oklahoma Courts don’t make it easy for convicted prisoners to bring up new evidence on appeal. She said Julius Jones’ appeals were denied on technicalities.
A jury sentenced Jones to capital punishment for allegedly murdering Paul Howell, a White man, in Edmond, Oklahoma in 1999. Edmond is an affluent majority White suburban community just north of Oklahoma City.
The Jones Family maintains Julius was home with his sister Antoinette and their parents during the night Howell was murdered.
“For the Oklahoma Court of Appeals to deny Julius’ relief when he said he had inadequate counsel,” represented just one example of the complex hurdles prisoners must go through to argue their innocence.
For instance, at least one juror from the 1999 trial was overheard saying the trial was a waste of time and that they should “just take this nigger out and shoot him behind the jail.”
Oklahoma’s post-conviction statute requires that death row prisoners only have 60 days to file a post-conviction application based on newly discovered evidence.
The Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals denied Julius Jones’s application on procedural grounds, Jones’ former federal public defenders wrote in a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the OCCA’s decision.
“It’s the harsh reality of just wanting to win, and that’s not true justice,” Antoinette Jones said.
Julius Jones speaks out
The Black Wall Street Times obtained an audio message from Julius Jones, shared via Antoinette. We asked him how he’s holding up, what he does to pass the time, what it means when the Governor says he’s “pro-life,” and what he wants his fellow Oklahomans to know.
“Some days are worst than others. I’m just trying to get my mind up to deal with it all,” Julius Jones told The Black Wall Street Times via an audio communication.
Jones said he’s reading and trying to get back to writing, but his mind remains scattered from the “cruelty in our world.”
“I always thought it’s strange that we say it’s wrong to kill people, then we wanna kill people. We don’t rob people who rob people. It’s a strange thing,” Jones added.
When asked what Gov. Stitt means by claiming to be pro-life, Julius Jones defined life in his own words.
“Honestly I think people don’t know what life means. It’s a campaign slogan. Life is the existence of something that allows you to grow and evolve. It’s the sustenance you need to exist,” Julius Jones said.
“I didn’t take Mr. Paul Howell’s life. I want it to be acknowledged.”
Despite serving more than half his life in prison for a crime he maintains he never committed, Jones expressed hope.
“I know I will be free someday. I just wish I didn’t have to continue to wait. Mentally I’m still trying to recover from all that’s happened. It’s hard to adjust to the reality of people who say they believe in God and yet they [inaudible] cruelty and oppression. We all say we wanna be tough on crime but I believe in preventing crime,” Jones said.
Ultimately, Jones said he wants the state to be filled with love and support for each other.
“I’m still humbled by all the people who showed up to save my life. Now I want them to show up to help bring my freedom back,” Julius Jones told The Black Wall Street Times.
“The truth should matter. The truth is I’m hurting because I’ve been treated this way. My family been treated this way. The Howell family been treated this way. They’ve been told lies. I didn’t take Mr. Paul Howell’s life. I want it to be acknowledged. I’m not gonna stop until it’s acknowledged.”
Jones’ sister, Antoinette, echoed his words. “Where there’s a will there’s a way. And we’ve still got a will going,” she said.